Two young men on the same island. They are both tired, their heads resting against the window of a van or a bus as they fall asleep. They are poor, cleaning up after others. They don’t know each other and have never met. Their lives have very little in common. But their bodies go through the same motions, in the same country, under the same sun.
That is the story of Il mio corpo (‘my body’, a reference to a christian prayer), sophomore feature of Italian documentarian Michele Pennetta, screening in Visions de Réel International’s Feature Doc Competition. It is the final part of what he calls a Sicilian trilogy on illegality, after the short ’A iucata (2013) on illegal horse racing, winner of a Golden Pardino ‘Leopard of Tomorrow’ at the festival of Locarno, and his debut feature Pescatori di corpi (Fishing Bodies, 2016) – another ‘body’ title (with similar religious connotations), about clandestine Sicilian fishermen and a Syrian refugee.
In Il mio corpo one of the men is a youngster, Oscar. He works with his older brother for his junk-dealer father, a man who has beer for breakfast. They drive around Sicily, collecting scrap metal from illegal landfills, looking for anything that’s worth something. It’s a barren land, under a burning sun. Oscar drags metal bars, fences, and boilers to his father, who is shouting a constant stream of abuse. “Don’t pick up the rocks!” “Sleep at night!” “Don’t talk back or I’ll chuck a rock at your head!”
When Oscar, proudly, shows an intact Madonna statue he has found among the rubble, his father calls out: “Don’t break it or I’ll break you.” When they drive home, his father says: “I’ll trade you for a black person, the first chance I get.”
Cut to a church. Stanley, a Nigerian immigrant and our second protagonist, is quietly sweeping the floor. He also is in a difficult Father-son relationship – Father with a capital F. The priest not only lets Stanley clean the church, but also arranges other jobs for him. We see Stanley harvesting grapes and herding sheep. Still, Stanley’s Nigerian friend tells him, “You can’t even pay the rent!”
Is Stanley being taken advantage of, or is the priest – who remarks how times are hard, even for Italians – his saviour? And is Oscar being taken advantage of? Or is his father, in his own way, providing for the family as best he can?
Pennetta doesn’t judge, but he does take sides: his love for his main characters is obvious. As is his love for Sicily, its rugged interior, the barren hills under the blazing sun, and the endless blue sea where Stanley swims, looking out over the water he once crossed on a dangerous journey. It is beautifully framed, and Pennetta credits his seasoned cameraman Paolo Ferrari for the impressive imagery, sometimes giving Il mio corpo the feel of a fiction film.
And it is in the images that Oscar and Stanley are most similar. Working in the fields, walking across the land, falling asleep. Often the documentary cuts between similar shots and situations, as if, although they never met, their parallel lives follow similar rhythms, echoing each other on a more basic level. Stanley’s night out dancing rhymes with Oscar enjoying a bike ride downhill. And both, we learn, have been raised by their fathers, after their mothers left.
That last bit of information comes to us through conversations (between Oscar and his father, and between Stanley and his friend) that feel orchestrated by the filmmakers. There are no interviews in Il mio corpo, and no voice-overs; apparently the filmmakers felt the need for at least some background information. But Il mio corpo is not about these specifics, but about the far more general idea that everywhere, we, our bodies, share the same spaces, the same countries, the same islands, with marginalized, tired, hard-working people we will never meet, and who will never meet each other (unless some filmmaker decides to arrange it).
It is tempting to consider how Il mio corpo would have turned out if even the little bit of exposition it does contain had been left out. In an interview for the Visions du Réel website, Pennetta admitted to some re-enactments, but stressed that many things were filmed simply as they found them, including some one-shot long takes. He specifically mentioned Oscar’s waking-up scene, where the only intervention consisted of months of gaining trust, to eventually be allowed entry into Oscar’s apartment, even before the family had fully woken up.
It’s the tenderness with which the filmmakers approach their protagonists at such moments, that slowly reveal the deeper layers of their story. Where we discover, above all, a deeply human sadness. It is that feeling which, together with the beauty of their faces, their bodies and their land, raises Il mio corpo to the point where Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, played during the end credits, feels earned.
Director: Michele Pennetta
This review was first published in the Business Doc Europe coverage of Visions du Réel 2020.